The current land grab that Historic Scotland is making for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) should keep anyone involved in archaeology, indeed the heritage industry in Scotland, awake at night.
Ministers of the Scottish parliament announced an “options appraisal” in November last year, the clear agenda of which is that RCAHMS will find itself folded into Historic Scotland in the next few years.
There is no doubt that this is a takeover attempt. Fair enough. Historic Scotland is desperate to justify its own existence. Scottish finance secretary John Swinney announced eye-watering and humiliating cuts to the agency’s funding from £47 million to £35.7m in 2014-15. Not exactly an indication that the Scottish parliament plans to make culture and history a priority.
The problem is that Historic Scotland is anything other than a beacon of excellence. Over the past week it has become clear even to the most casual observer that Historic Scotland isn’t remotely up to the job. Five of the most senior members of the government agency have left over the past 18 months since the appointment of hapless chief executive Ruth Parsons, and 53 cases of bullying were reported in October alone last year.
The screams from RCAHMS are getting louder. "[A merger] is not something we relish having a 100 year history of working without government interference. They are a terrible organisation to work with and they care little for the sector and less for the archaeology," said one insider.
The RCAHMS has a point. The merger of English Heritage and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) at the end of 1990s has not been a happy marriage. "It wasn’t quite the grand idea that some thought it might be. RCHME was never fully integrated into the work of English Heritage, with the National Monuments Record separate from the other English Heritage archives. Its research and recording programme lost emphasis in favour of other priorities," writes Peter Drummond, national chairman of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland.
On top of that, unless it fits its own crude political agenda (£8.9 million for Bannockburn anyone?) the disinterest that the Scottish parliament has in managing the country’s heritage is palpable. Culture minister Fiona Hyslop's rejection of a plea to open a national tourism centre in Perthshire to celebrate its Roman heritage in October last year, as just one example, was as depressing as it was short sighted.
Aside from the fact that it is never a good idea for goverment to intefere in archaeological research, indeed any kind of scientific or academic research, it is hard to see how a merger between these two institutions can possibly be a good idea. All it does is prop up Historic Scotland.